What is at the core of the immigration issue? What is the driving force of the debate? I say it is fear.
What's at the core of the debate, in my opinion, is a cultural fear that grows out of cultural hegemony and cultural idolatry. Namely, the fear comes from the "threat" of having large numbers of immigrants who refuse to assimilate easily, in a country where the cultural majority sees assimilation as a moral virtue and as a necessity for socio-political well-being.
In other words, immigration is not a threat to national security; it is a threat to national identity. For since the first rounds of Native American extermination, the cultural "norm" has been set by the cultural majority, namely, immigrants of Anglo stock. Which is why I am convinced that "white" is a political designation, not a cultural one.
I am even suspicious of the intention of some white liberals who, by using "diversity" and "multicultural" language, are really attempting to maintain cultural control in the guise of diversity "management." This cultural control avoids the real task at hand: de-white-supremafication. As these gatekeepers of Anglo-American culture see it, their power to set and sustain the norm is being challenged by backwater, Spanish-speaking, indigenous, Catholic, pre-modern, brown people who are a drag on the economy. What these immigrants are a drag on is the cultural hegemony of white society. Just as post-bellum white southerners feared a black cultural revolution and thus acted in horrific, dehumanizing ways to squelch any inkling of Afro-cultural insurgency, the cultural majority today fears specifically a Latino-cultural revolution which will rob them of their power to set the "norm."
The sad tale to this saga for me, as a faithful Christian, is that this cultural hegemony has been, and still is, sanctioned and sustained by religion. God-talk is employed to ignore cultural fear and to maintain cultural hegemony, which consequently leads to cultural idolatry. Below are three ways in which religion is distorted to advance these ends.
- The dominant culture makes an appeal to "obedience of the law" as a moral absolute without first determining whether the contents and intents of said law, in and of themselves, are morally right and just.
- The nation that concocts these laws is given divine origins and divine purpose. In short, to go against the state is to go against God.
- The "white" majority, who have written the history of the nation (so as to soften up things like Native extermination, slavery of African peoples, and subjugation of women), are given divine preference and set the "standard" by which all residents of the republic are judged.
The cultural fear of the cultural majority is fostered by appeals to religion -- in this country, by appeals to their Christianity. And I will specify: their Christianity. Statistics show that the majority of African, Persian, Asian, and Latin American immigrants are Christian; yet these forms of imported, un-Americanized Christianity are not good enough for this republic and its religion.
As a Christian, I challenge their cultural-civil form of Christianity because as I see it, it is not Christianity. The Christian faith is one of liberating power from below, not oppressive power from above. This principal of liberating power is embodied in the Torah, where provisions were made to guard against economic exploitation, political oppression, and religious legitimation. The prophets remind the people of the socio-political mandate of the law, for they had emptied the law of its liberating power and had begun to use it for personal gain and exploitative purposes in the name of God -- sounds awfully familiar!
For Christians, the Christ event is the fullest embodiment of this liberating power. It is in the political execution of Jesus on the Cross where he is ironically yet profoundly crowned king, and where God's liberating power was demonstrated and the culture's oppressive power exposed.
Lest I am accused of theological rambling, I wish to point out how this re-appropriation of the faith is applicable to the immigration issue. First of all, the immigration laws of this country are unjust, and should be declared as such by people of faith. Before we are called upon to adhere to these decrees, we should consider and challenge the racist, classist, ideological, and religiously exclusivist demons that inform and shape immigration policy as it now stands. To adhere to an immoral law is, well, immoral. For this reason, I have no problem encouraging churches, synagogues, and mosques to "break the law" and serve as sanctuaries for immigrants.
Secondly, a critique of cultural idolatry is in order. While God in the Tanakh is referred to as "the God of Israel," God is not an Israelite -- nor is God an American, for that matter. Cultural idolatry diminishes the beauty of the whole people of God and does not allow us to see diversity as a gift of God's Spirit (Acts 2). Providing sanctuary is a bold affirmation of diversity and of diversity's rightful place in the American cultural milieu.
Thirdly, I believe that faith and "values" language -- i.e. "God-talk" -- has its place in politics, since it is the language of many people who are affected by the political process. God-talk should be employed only for the common good, however, and not for private or denominational interests. Civil religion used to subjugate workers for personal gains is rebuked by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 58).
Lastly, people of faith should be at the forefront in naming the fear, and illegitimizing it. For it is, after all, illegitimate fear. In fact, it is fear of the worst kind: fear of the "other." And it is only by knowing the "other" and by loving them that fear is replaced by compassion and solidarity, which are core values of the sanctuary movement. As it is written, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18)
To be clear, love casts out fear, not immigrants.
José F. Morales Jr. is a freelance writer, a public speaker and preacher, and an adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. This article was originally in For You Were Once a Stranger: Immigration in the U.S. through the Lens of Faith, a primer on immigration by the Interfaith Worker Justice of Chicago, available online at: www.iwj.org.